In “Mirai,” a Japanese toddler, Kun, (Jaden Waldman “Pinkalicious”) has his life turned upside down by his new sister, Mirai (Victoria Grace, “47 Ronin”). Mirai is the catalyst for Mamoru Hosoda’s newest film, an intriguing survey of what it means to be a family, how individual histories becomes part of a collective story and what that means for the youngest members just learning to appreciate the world.
“Mirai” challenges familial gender roles — instead of Kun’s mom (Rebecca Hall, “Professor Martson and the Wonder Women”) staying home to take care of the family, it is his dad (John Cho, “Searching”) who struggles to balance his job as a freelance architect with his responsibilities as a father. The movie highlights the pressures of being new parents and uses the relationship between Kun’s parents as a way to single out fathers who only talk about how much they do in the house, rather than actually doing it. This also sets the stage for a satisfying character arc for Kun’s father: He eventually becomes more concerned with actually raising his kids than with whether or not the whole neighborhood knows what he’s doing.
The importance of family is a recurring theme that we see in a lot of films — particularly in children’s films. But the fact that it’s animated doesn’t, or at least shouldn’t, automatically relegate “Mirai” to the children’s movie genre. Often, in the United States, we forget that animated films can be more than just physical comedy and jokes — they can be sharply satirical or introspective and just as much of a “film” as any movie with actual, physical actors. Even though, in recent years, films like “Zootopia” have tried to grapple with difficult topics like racism, the animated film industry in the United States is still heavily saturated with children’s movies whose underlying complexities are barely there or overtly comedic, and sometimes careless, “adult” animations. “Mirai,” however, delivers a very clear message about family in a sophisticated way — something that’s often missing in the ones coming from studios like Disney. “Mirai” strips away the layer of humor characteristic of Western animations and, instead, takes animation to a place where the story can truly grow.
Films like “Mirai” also serve as a reminder of the artistry necessary to develop any film, let alone an animated one. Lighting and camera direction are just two of the aspects of a scene that directors have to contend with or, in the case of an animated film, have to draw. The actual drawings in “Mirai” are simple when compared to movies like “Incredibles 2” or “Monsters, Inc.” But it’s this simplicity that allows “Mirai” to depict detailed emotions and develop a relationship with its audience. The animation is more of a plot device in “Mirai” than it is simply a genre. Though the beginning of the film is very one-dimensional, towards the end, as Kun’s character matures, so does the level of animation. The Tokyo train station Kun finds himself in looks like a very real train station, but the characters still remain cartoons. Even within these drawings, though, the strangers at the station are dark shadows of adults while Kun maintains his bright colors, emphasizing the tension that has been building as Kun grapples with his understanding of who he is in the new family hierarchy.
“Mirai” is a moving film about individual hardships and the collective story they create in a family history. Its exploration of sibling relationships and the strain raising children can have on parents is a captivating and raw understanding of the messiness that’s integral to a family. But, in the words of Kun’s mom, everything is better when it’s messy.